As the world applauds Aung San Suu Kyi’s long-overdue acceptance of her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on Saturday, reports of ethnic cleansing, state-sanctioned murder, mass rape and the razing of villages continue to emerge from Burma’s west.
A growing humanitarian crisis is unfolding with tens of thousands of refugees in desperate need of assistance, according to local sources.
Violence in Arakan state, between the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority, erupted earlier this month following the rape and murder of a Buddhist girl in late May. On June 3, 10 Muslims, unconnected to the crime, were taken from the bus they were travelling and clubbed to death in revenge.
Since then, according to Rohingya within Arakan and living in exile, mobs of Rakhine have acted in concert with state security forces to destroy villages and murder civilians. Reliable figures cannot be obtained but those connected with events fear thousands of people have been murdered or disappeared.
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Verifying accounts is close to impossible in an area with little presence from international NGOs, save several already withdrawn United Nations personnel, and no foreign media. On Thursday, Burmese state media updated official figures to 50 people killed and 54 injured and acknowledged that more than 30,000 people had been displaced.
Speaking via telephone from Sittwe, Arakan’s capital, a Rohingya resident identifying herself only as “Jimmy”, for fear of the consequences from state police, expressed frustration at her inability to convey the situation accurately in limited English.
“Please help us, help our people,” she implored the world. “We are helpless and hopeless. Please save our people.”
Unable to leave her house due to a military curfew, Jimmy said thousands in Sittwe were in need of medicine, food, clothes and shelter after being made homeless. As the numbers of refugees continued to grow they were being denied assistance from government hospitals and had little recourse to assistance.
“The government cut the water, communication and the electricity to the Rohingya,” she said. “The hospitals are controlled by the Rakhine and they won’t let the Rohingya go in. There are no toilets. We need medicine, food, clothes, shelter.”
According to Jimmy, after days of attacks military commanders in Sittwe have moved to quell the violence perpetrated by Rakhine mobs and Arakan state police. The situation she described in Maungdaw was far worse.
“In Maungdaw, the army and police are still destroying houses,” she said. “The military supervisor in Maungdaw is very bad. They go house to house killing people, r-ping women.”
In a televised address on Monday, Thien Sein justified the imposition of martial law by saying the violence in Arakan state could spread to other parts of the country. “If this happens, the general public should be aware that the country’s stability and peace, which are only in transition right now, could be severely affected and much would be lost,” he said.
Tin Soe is editor of the Bangladesh-based Rohingya news source Kaldan Press. From the accounts he has received, he believes Sittwe and Maungdaw have seen the worst of the violence.
“This is happening, this is genocide,” he stressed. “From the reports we are receiving, we hear that the Rakhine burn the houses and then shoot people when they try to escape. The police are taking the bodies to prevent burials and an accurate death toll.”
Habib Habiburahman was a prominent activist for Rohingya rights while living in Malaysia before travelling to Australia as an asylum seeker, where he has spent the past three years in the Department of Immigration’s detention system. He has provided regular updates on the situation in Arakan state, collected from sources in Burma, through social media websites.
Habib, who has not heard news of his mother, sister and aunt since the violence began, fears the death toll from the past two weeks may be in the tens of thousands. His latest post reports the destruction of Rohingya houses, on Saturday, in San-ga-daung village, with 75 people killed and 49 children abducted.
“They need immediate supply of food, clothes and medicine,” Habib said of the displaced people he estimated to be around 50,000. “People are dying of hunger and a lack of medical care, shelter and clothing. It is seriously important to give international pressure to the military junta to immediately allow the public supply of necessary food, medicine, clothing and shelter.
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic and religious minority, number 800,000 in Burma and are denied citizenship by the Burmese state. Their status as non-citizens results in state-sanctioned persecution including restrictions on healthcare, travel, the issuance of marriage licences, education and employment. There are up to 300,000 Rohingya living as refugees in Bangladesh and many undertake treacherous journeys to live and work in Thailand and Malaysia.
In 1978 and 1991, the Burmese military undertook ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Rohingya, expelling more than 200,000 people to neighbouring Bangladesh on each occasion. Refugees entering Bangladesh face further persecution and a denial of rights.
Elaine Pearson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, fears the situation will spiral out of control and called for international monitors to be allowed access in order to limit human rights violations and accurately report events.
“It’s unclear the extent of the violence given a lack of access to Arakan state,” she said. “In the past the military has been at the forefront of committing abuses against the Rohingya, such as extra judicial killings, torture and forced labour. There are bound to be sweeps in the coming days, meaning there is a risk of wrongful arrests, disappearances and torture.”
At a time when Western leaders are moving towards greater engagement with the south-east Asian nation in consideration of limited democratic reforms, Pearson warned the international community must remain wary of Thien Sein’s military regime.
“Western countries are falling over themselves to lift sanctions,” she said. “[But there is still] limited access to large parts of the country and many ethnic areas have seen few benefits from the reform process. The international community must remain vigilant, insisting on full civilian control over the military and building the rule of law, instead of giving up all its leverage at a moment when that process has barely begun.”
The Rohingya have failed to gain sympathy from the general Burmese population, including those usually lauded as champions of human rights. “We want to say clearly that Rohingya are not one of the [Burmese] ethnic minorities,” said Ko Ko Gyi, a celebrated political dissident and one of the leaders of the 1988 student uprising.
While urging restraint, Aan San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy Party, has so far failed to condemn the violence. Pearson urged an end to the intolerance of the Rohingya.
“It is important for all actors in Burma, including the National League for Democracy speak up and condemn the violence in Arakan state and recognise how racism and intolerance against the Rohingya has been entrenched further by legal policies of discrimination,” she said.
*Nigel O’Connor is on Twitter: @nigel_oconnor